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Tehran - A great introduction to Iranian culture, customs and hospitality

After a lot of preparation and thorough research, my time to visit Iran had finally come! Little did I know that this two-month long journey would get me acquainted with my favourite country in the world... Time had come: with my hair veil on and the most modest looking clothes I could find abroad, I was off to Iran!

My arrival and first impressions

My time in Iran seemed to have started right from the gate at London Heathrow's airport. While waiting to board, I quickly noticed that I was the single non-Middle Eastern/non-Iranian looking person to be seen. And already people were starring at me a lot more than I would look at them, with facial expressions that showed surprise and curiosity as to why I would be catching this flight. I certainly looked way too casual to appear to be a business woman, and without a travel partner, they likely wouldn't even dream of the idea that I was on my way to backpack around their country.

And finally, in Tehran

But the interesting part was that as intrigued as they seemed, I saw approval in their eyes, and not a slight hint of hostility. By the time, I took my seat on the plane I was approached by people and they were ready to display their kindness, after the initial shock of learning I was off to travel to Iran on my own. By the time we landed, I had been given three different phone numbers and contacts in different parts of the country, with invitations to be their guests or for anything I might need. Yep. This is how amazing these people are.

Panoramic view of Tehran with mountains on the background

As soon as the plane landed, I put on my head scarf, and tightly adjusted it with safety pins. Although I got approval looks by my fellow passengers, some seemed more apologetic than anything else, and one lady even told me she was sorry I had to go through this. Iranians couldn't be less satisfied with the impositions from their government, something I got to feel all around, right away.

I was the only foreigner in the foreigner's immigration line, and I had told myself not to be too talkative, not to look at the official in the eye and to simply present my passport. Much too my luck, no questions were asked, and soon enough, I was collecting my backpack, going through the X-Ray machine, and finally, in Tehran.

The roads were in perfect shape

I had arranged to a driver from my hotel to pick me up, and I was relived to spot him as soon as I came out, waiting for me, ready to take me on a long journey into the city centre.

The airport was, surprisingly, very nice and modern - quite different than what I had imagined. The roads were in perfect shape, and I could see the sun rising behind the beautiful Alborz mountains. Traffic was quite OK; the city was less polluted and hectic than I imagined. All kinds of people commuting to work. Some of the women were dressed in their full-on black, all-covering conservative dress, but many young girls were wearing tight, short and very revealing manteaux (the long jacket to be worn, at least until knee length) - I did not know that those versions would be acceptable.

More than anything, Tehran seemed normal

More than anything, Tehran seemed normal. A normal city, full of perfectly normal-looking people going on about their very normal lifestyle, in their early morning commute to work and school. Nothing at all like the way TV seems to represent it. Everything was good.

Not quite out on my own

A solo traveller, always running into great company

After resting for a bit, I got some instructions from the front desk staff at my simple little hotel, and ventured outside, walking towards the centre, in order to reach Tehran's Grand Bazaar - the first of the many incredible markets I would come across during this trip. I walked around in amazement, and it didn't take long for people to approach me, but not to try to sell me anything, but to try and practice their English or French, and offer hospitality, showing me around the many areas of the Bazaar.

Tehran's Grand Bazaar

A Sim card and a new manteaux later, I was ready to venture into Tehran's metro. A close Canadian-Iranian friend had given me her sister's number, and insisted I meet her family. I had made plans to meet them all for dinner at their house. Local transport was efficient and cheap, and as easy as catching the metro was, catching a following bus was slightly complicated. I had to put my extended patience and limited Farsi to the test, and get all the help from people nearby I could get. A few hours later, I met Fariba - who along, with her family, would turn out to become life-long friends and make my experience in Iran better than I could have expected.

I was ready to venture into Tehran's metro

To summarise how well things went, after dinner we drove back to my hotel to pick up my belongings and move into their house - a place that truly felt like a home and like a base in Iran for me. I travelled extensively for two months, but always making my way back to stay for a few days with this family in Tehran.

So many things to see

Over the following few days, they showed me the best of the city: The Golestan Palace, with its well-kept gardens and incredible Mirrors room, the Sa'dabad Palace (where the infamous Sah Reza and his wife Fara Diba hadonce lived), the "Bame Tehran" (The roof of Tehran), and its area, filled with cafes and youth hanging around, on the foothill of the Alborz mountains, (from the top of which, allegedly, on a clear day or night, one can see all of Tehran), The incredible Jewellery museum, the just-as-impressive Carpet museum, The Milad Tower, the Azadi Tower and much much more...

The Golestan Palace in Tehran

Tehran was full of gardens everywhere and at any given time of the day the streets seemed to be very lively. Fair enough, no bars to be found, but there were countless coffee shops and "shisha cafes", constantly filled by people of all ages. Iranians stroke me as extremely sociable people that do enjoy being outdoors a lot. The more I came to know their culture and their history, the more sorrow I felt for what they have gone through after the "Revolution" that turned a very open-minded and educated group of people into people that have no choice but to abide by absolutism and religious fundamentalism.

Entrance of Zaid Mosque in Tehran Grand Bazaar

And the saddest of it all, was noticing that most Iranians had little or no hope for the future of their country, and were in fact, doing their very best to leave it behind should an opportunity to immigrate or to study abroad arise. Most of them have a lot of family abroad, as the exodus that started in the late 1970s was rather large, and continued for a a good while.

View of the Azadi Tower in Tehran

But it wasn't until the last night of my first visit to Tehran that I got to visit my favourite area: "Darband". Also located by the foothill of the Alborz, this quarter is a bit hard to describe, as my words just don't seem to bring its magical atmosphere to life. The name "Darband" actually means "gateway to the mountain" in Farsi, and this area is in fact a former village within Tehran's city limits. The Darband trail leads into the Mount Tochal, for those up for hiking, but the mount can also be accessed by a chair lift.

Rushing people inside Tehran's old bazaar

But what makes it so impressive are the first 250 metres leading up to the 2.5 Km trail, filled by restaurants, cafes, all-around water streams, beautiful nature and year-round enjoyable climate. Tehranians really enjoy taking their families out there, and the entire area has a truly enchanting ambience. Dry fruit sellers can be found everywhere, as well as shops selling art, tea houses and much more.

Off to explore

A massive and very diverse country awaits

I couldn't have asked for a better start to my trip. A week in Tehran brought me not only long-lasting friendships but also a very good opportunity to get acquainted and prepared for what would come next. As sad as I was to leave this incredible capital city, I knew I'd be back in a matter of weeks, or sooner, if I felt at all homesick. Another new friend I had contacted before arriving had invited me to join him on a road trip, which would take me from the north to the south, crossing through some very interesting cities. At that point, I just knew I would also fall in love with the rest of the country - as long as it was also filled by Iran's dearest asset: Its people.

MJ Lopes

MJ Lopes

MJ Lopes

The Wondering Wanderer

Brazilian born and raised, MJ Lopes started travelling before she turned one-month-old and hasn't...

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